ST. PETERSBURG — Despite the early hour, the 13 boys in Kristy Lengner's homeroom were wide awake. Unfortunately, their interest wasn't in school work.
The Gibbs Gladiators lost 31-6 to the Azalea Bulldogs over the weekend, and Lengner, a second-year teacher at Azalea Middle, knew her students wouldn't focus until they spilled all the details. "I want to hear what happened on the field," she said, as the students threw out a jumble of on- and off-the-field dramatics about the Suncoast Youth Football Conference game.
What seems like an interruption is exactly what homeroom is designed for this year, said principal Connie Kolosey. For 16 minutes every morning, students split into gender-segregated rooms to learn study skills. They also get a chance to say what's on their minds, without disrupting their regular classes, and bond with the teacher who will oversee their FCAT exams.
It's just one of the changes at Azalea Middle this year as the F-rated school tries to improve. The school also has a new discipline plan for students and two new programs, JROTC and an "engineering gateway to technology" program. What it doesn't have is a lot of new teachers.
Azalea Middle and four other schools in Pinellas County — Melrose, Fairmount Park and Maximo elementaries and Pinellas Park Middle — were forced to undergo a staff restructuring this year, courtesy of the state's accountability system. Four of the schools earned Fs last school year, while Pinellas Park Middle earned a D.
Their "turnaround" plans emphasize replacing staff members, including principals, as part of an effort to change school culture and ultimately improve test scores. But Pinellas hasn't exactly followed the state's formula.
The state requires that principals be replaced — superintendent Mike Grego moved three of the original five, but kept Kolosey at Azalea Middle and Randi Latzke at Maximo. All but one of the principals rehired more than half of the original staff.
Azalea Middle had the highest percentage of returning teachers, with 72 percent rehired for the 2013-14 school year, according to the district. Maximo was second, with 66 percent of teachers returning. Pinellas Park Middle brought back 63 percent; Fairmount Park rehired 59 percent. Melrose was the only school to hire almost all new teachers. The district's numbers included some other instructional staff members, such as academic coaches.
There is no magic formula for turning around a low-performing school, and staff changes must be done with care, said Grego, who went over each school's roster. "It's not a numbers game."
He said it wasn't about finding new people, but the right people. He wanted good principals and teachers who would stay.
"I looked at these schools in particular over the last five years and it's astonishing, the revolving door of teachers and leaders," he said. "That has to stop."
Schools like these five — with a high percentage of low-income students — often have a difficult time hiring teachers; turnover is a constant problem. To combat that, the district offered teachers a $3,000 recruitment bonus. Principals, who received a $5,000 bonus, also were given advantages over other schools. They were able to hire earlier in the year, and their schools didn't have to take teachers who had been involuntarily moved from another school.
At Fairmount Park Elementary, principal Nina Pollauf said in an email that the "priority hiring" gave her more time to search for the best candidates. She ultimately hired 25 new teachers and rehired 36 veterans of Fairmount Park. Grego said one literacy coach at Fairmount Park commutes from Palm Harbor every day.
"I rehired those teachers that showed a commitment to our students and the school and met the necessary criteria," she wrote.
At Azalea Middle, Kolosey rehired many teachers who started their careers at the school last year. She also snagged a few veteran teachers who had been displaced because of the closing of a special education center. She tried not to hire brand-new teachers.
"This is a tough place to cut your teeth," she said.
Tonceola Askew, who has been at Azalea Middle since 2000, said she commutes from Tampa to work there. Leslie Simmons, who has been there nine years, said "you can't pay me to leave."
Lengner said she stayed because she loves her principal and the students. Even in the second week of school, she said she's learned how to keep her students' interest. She's going to a football game.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.